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  • The Pictures and the Negatives in the Fantasies of George MacDonald
  • Judith Gero John (bio)
McGillis, Roderick , ed. For the Childlike: George MacDonald's Fantasies for Children. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1992.

Reading George MacDonald's fantasies is like examining a photograph and then examining its negative. Within MacDonald's work, there are clear images but there are also shadows that reverse the photographic certainty of MacDonald's world of black and white, good and bad, male and female. In For the Childlike, editor Roderick McGillis and other writers examine both positive and negative images in MacDonald's works.

In his introduction, McGillis presents the reader with a discussion of the main topics of the book, and he reinforces the concept that MacDonald's writing is a complex rendering of the author's physical, psychological, and philosophical views of the world. As with many great thinkers, MacDonald's views are based on a variety of influences, some of which seem to be in opposition to one another and are responsible for many of the contrasts in MacDonald's writing. According to McGillis, MacDonald is a "writer of impressive sophistication and subtlety" who has a deft ability

to conjoin apparently disparate aspects. His work is both didactic and symbolic, clear and puzzling, realistic and fantastic, introverted and extroverted, personal and social. Such oppositions suggest MacDonald's dialectic.


In fifteen essays, the writers attempt to bring into focus MacDonald's work, not only the obvious, photographic images but especially the negatives that often leave readers feeling as though their thoughts and expectations have been turned upside down. [End Page 240]

Most MacDonald critics prefer to focus on his best known stories: At the Back of the North Wind the "Princess" books, and "The Golden Key." For the Childlike is an important critical collection because it offers commentary on all of MacDonald's fairy tales, including two novels usually discussed with his "adult" work: Phantasies and Lillith.

In his introductory remarks, McGillis explains MacDonald's choice of genre by looking at "The Giant's Heart." McGillis argues convincingly that MacDonald's knowledge and use of the folktale tradition lead the reader to anticipate certain story patterns but that MacDonald often successfully inverts those expectations. In each of his other essays, "The Community of the Centre: Structure and Theme in Phantasies" and "Language and Secret Knowledge in At the Back of the North Wind," McGillis concentrates on the ways in which style and language contribute to meaning in MacDonald's works. In choosing MacDonald's early novel, Phantasies, McGillis indicates early examples of the themes and patterns that inform many of MacDonald's stories. He emphasizes MacDonald's fascination with paradox and the creation of meaning within structure. In his second essay, McGillis concentrates on the energy and poetic qualities of MacDonald's language.

It is difficult to imagine a book of criticism on MacDonald that does not include biographical elements, and For the Childlike is no exception. Stephen Prickett in "The Two Worlds of George MacDonald"; William Raeper in "Diamond and Kilmeny: MacDonald, Hogg, and the Scottish Folk Tradition"; and Michael Mendelson in "The Fairy Tales of George MacDonald and the Evolution of a Genre" all discuss biographical details to explain the images and shadows found in MacDonald's writings. Prickett examines what he sees as a "persistent" theme in MacDonald's writing—worlds that are "superimposed upon one another" (17). Calling upon MacDonald's biographical duality—Scottish Calvinism superimposed on London Congregationalism—Prickett is able to examine myth and symbol in terms of the personal and universal in MacDonald's works. Raeper sees MacDonald superimposing the world of fairy derived from his Scottish background upon Victorian London in At The Back of the North Wind. It is his Scottish background, according to Raeper, that helped him to accept the world of fairy during a time when it was under attack on both religious and social fronts. Mendelson, conversely, focuses on MacDonald's other writings and his short lived vocation as a minister to examine how MacDonald created his own writing technique within the fairy-tale genre.

While Mendelson's essay hints at a Jungian approach to MacDonald's work, both Nancy-Lou Patterson...


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